Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 3, Chapter 7 : Garnering (Whelp-hunting) | Summary

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Summary

During the activity surrounding Stephen's rescue, Sissy whispers to Tom in the crowd, urging him to escape while he can. She tells Mr. Gradgrind that she told Tom to find Mr. Sleary's circus, and the family plans to send Tom abroad from the nearby port of Liverpool so he can escape Mr. Bounderby's wrath.

The Gradgrinds and Sissy catch up with the circus and find the performers have hidden Tom by painting his face black to play a servant in one of their skits. After the performance Mr. Gradgrind confronts a sulky Tom who tells his father how he staged the robbery to cover his debt of the 150 pounds. Mr. Gradgrind tells Tom he has arranged for him to leave the country and offers his forgiveness. Tom refuses to speak to Louisa or show her gratitude or love. He sulkily accuses her of never caring for him. Just as the circus troupe and the Gradgrinds prepare to transport Tom, Bitzer arrives on the scene to apprehend Tom and return him to Mr. Bounderby to face justice.

Analysis

The efforts to help Tom escape the country are the acts of two loving families. Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa love Tom and want to help him. Mr. Sleary's circus performers love Sissy and want to help her, and they want to help the Gradgrinds because they have been good to Sissy. The goal is a noble one, but it is based on emotion, not reason.

In fact Tom is guilty of a crime. More than that, his reckless actions and attempts to cover his tracks have led to the death of an innocent man, not just innocent of the crime but innocent of any involvement that might do harm to anyone. Furthermore, Tom's problems, the sense he deserves his family's help and his unwillingness to accept responsibility for what he has done—evident in his sulky reception when his father and sister arrive at the circus—result from Louisa and Mr. Gradgrind either ignoring his misbehavior or helping him get out of tight jams for years. The book shows that he deserves to face justice for what he has done, and the escape plan raises the question of whether exile is sufficient.

By modern standards, the choice for the circus performers to disguise Tom in blackface may read as troubling. But such costume choices would have been common in 19th-century entertainments, and the makeup would provide a practical means of disguise. At the same time, in the context of 1854 the use of this makeup can potentially be read as a punishment or a mark of Tom's shame as a criminal on the run—although Dickens's opposition to slavery appears in many of his other works.

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